Vekic eclipses Sun at Wimbledon to reach first grand slam semi at 43rd attempt

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Good things come to those who wait. In her 43rd grand slam event, 11 and a half years after her debut in a major, Donna Vekic secured a place in her first grand slam semi-final on Tuesday with a 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 win over Lulu Sun, ending the stunning run of the New Zealand qualifier, whose legs gave out in the third set of a gruelling contest. Vekic hit 11 aces, six double faults – including five in one game as she tried to serve out the second set – before stepping it up in the decider to set up a semi-final against either Jasmine Paolini of Italy or the American, Emma Navarro.

“It was a really tough match, she played unbelievable,” a drained Vekic said, the tears starting to flow. “I feel like she really pushed me to my limits. I felt like I was dying out there, the first two sets, but just kept going, hoping to have a chance and it came in the end.”

To watch the Croatian can be a stressful experience, the strains and intensity of the matches writ large on her face. In 2021, she was unsure if she would ever play again at this level after undergoing knee surgery and, the following year, struggling with plantar fasciitis before more knee trouble interrupted her progress. As recently as a few days before the French Open in May, she found herself not wanting to play any more.

“I didn’t have any energy, any motivation to keep practising, keep pushing because I felt like the last couple months I’ve given everything for tennis, and I wasn’t getting the results that I kind of expected,” she said. “It was a very, very tough moment, but [her team] were all there for me.”

Vekic reached the third round in Paris but lost to Olga Danilovic, having taken the first set 6-0. The pain of that defeat somehow restored her desire. “Honestly, it hurt me so much that I saw what I needed to change. It pushed me and motivated me even more.”

On Tuesday she needed every inch of her desire and fighting spirit to overcome Sun, who had come through qualifying to be the first New Zealand woman to reach the quarter-finals in the Open era. Victorious against Emma Raducanu in the previous round, the left-hander again looked at home on the big stage, pushing the world No 37 back with flat hitting, this time on No 1 Court. One break, in the 11th game, put her in front and a brilliant drop shot gave her the opener.

Vekic, 28, became more vocal in the second set, holding serve to stay ahead and finally getting the break she needed for 5-3, only to immediately give it back thanks to five double faults. Pam Shriver, the former doubles star and part of her coaching team, told her to reset. “I was like, reset what?” Vekic said. Somehow she did, though, and she broke with a drop shot winner of her own to level the match.

Lulu Sun plays a shot against Donna VekicView image in fullscreen

The fight seemed to disappear from Sun as the third set began and Vekic, her tail up, stormed ahead 5-0. Though Sun held serve, Vekic finished things off with ease to clinch her place in the last four. “Donna played really well,” Sun said. “She picked it up in the second set. Towards the end of the second and third, I had troubles physically with some cramps. That’s maybe the only regret I have is I couldn’t keep up physically, but she played better today and she deserved the win.”

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Sun’s ranking will now rise from No 123 to just outside the world’s top 50 and the 23-year-old will take enormous confidence from her run to the last eight. What makes her even more proud, she said, was to hear that people around New Zealand were gathering at tennis clubs to watch the match live on television. “I’m honestly just really happy to see that,” she said. “To have people watch tennis more and more and to grow tennis in New Zealand itself, and also for future generations as well, I’m super-pumped that is happening. I can’t wait for it to grow.”

Vekic, meanwhile, is the first Croatian woman to reach the semi-finals at Wimbledon since Mirjana Lucic in 1999. Two more wins and all the effort, all the pain, will have been worth it.


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